The Divine Compassion of Christ | Homily for Trinity II

‘When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’

In nomine…

The widow of Nain, to whom Jesus speaks this morning, is a woman who has lost everything. Not only is she grieving over the death of her only

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The Sacred Heart of Jesus

son but, in the context of 1st century Palestine, she is also staring into the abyss of the future. A widow in the first century, left with no children, is a person without any security, she has suddenly been thrust to the margins of society and will, from now on, be left to rely on the kindness of strangers or simply resign herself to fate and find a place to die. In short, this is a woman with every reason to weep. Yet, the Lord stumbles upon the funeral procession and, seeing her pain, is moved with compassion and wipes away her tears. This word compassion is one of the most poignant in the Gospels – it does not refer to ‘feeling sorry’ for her or taking pity on her – but rather that Jesus suffers with her, literally in the Greek that his heart breaks for her.

This is a very appropriate reading for today as the Roman Catholic Church celebrated on Friday the Sacred Heart of Jesus, introduced into Anglican devotion by the Franciscans as ‘the Divine Compassion of Christ’. This is not a solemnity well known in the Anglican Church but I’m sure many of us can picture one of the kitsch images of the sacred heart, which tend to focus on a pale Jesus with rosy cheeks piously pointing at his exposed heart, I think the idea of the Sacred Heart has much to say to us as Christians and I’d like to use my final homily in Corpus to think about how this particular devotion draws us into the mystery of God and calls us to a radical change of heart ourselves. In our College particularly, this is a poignant thing to reflect on – the founders of Corpus, using the evocative symbol of the Pelican, wanted to draw our attention to the unfathomable love of God, who pours out his own life for us on the altar and feeds us with own self.

The more time I have spent meditating on this mystery, the more I have become convinced that it is only in the broken heart of Jesus that the love of God can be found – in Jesus’ heart suffering with all who cry out in pain, with all who mourn or are left on the margins, the heart of Jesus’ moved with compassion for the poor and those whose own hearts have been corrupted in grasping for money, power or status. The love of God is found in the broken heart of Jesus. This is at the very heart of the Christian faith – as we hear proclaimed at Christmas, the Son, begotten in eternity from the heart of the Father, lives among us as our brother. In the life of Jesus of Nazareth we see as much God as humanity can hold. We see this so powerfully in our Gospel reading today – the Creator God, incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth is able to bring life from death and hope from despair. The Son comes from the heart of the Father and is united to a human heart and, when this heart is broken for the life of the world, we come to share in his divine life.

God does not love us as we are accustomed to love each other – according to merit or worth, according to how much like us the object of our love is. God does not love us because we deserve it or because we have earned it or because we have something that God needs that he lacks in his own nature. Instead, God is love. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is trying to make this point visually – giving us a centre of meditation and devotion – because to express the wonders of God’s love in Christ verbally is almost impossible and to accept this requires a lifetime.

This wondrous love, which holds nothing back, is the reason why devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus ought to be central to the Church’s faith and proclamation. Faced with the ineffable mystery of the divine compassion, our response is adoration – but the challenge of the Gospel is not only to adore the sacred heart but to conform our lives to this self-sacrifical outpouring of love. As the traditional prayer has it:

I adore Thee, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
inflame my heart with the divine love with which Thine Own is all on fire.

Our meditation on the sacred heart remains another load of pious rubbish, unless we heed the second line of this prayer – ‘inflame my heart’. This should be our daily prayer! When we adore the mystery of God’s eternal outpouring of reckless love, incarnate in the human heart of Jesus, we too must set our hearts on fire. With Jesus as our pioneer, we are called to imitate his compassion and join in his shameless love and self-giving mission to bind up the broken hearts of the human family. To be conformed to the great mystery we proclaim is to share in his work.

As many of us prepare to leave the relative comfort of our college walls and go out into the world, my prayer is that we can do this under the banner of the sacred heart. But that’s easier said than done. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to frustrate many of the marks of human success which society has laid out for us. To enthrone Jesus in your heart is to be driven to the margins of society – to seek your treasure amongst the poor. To pray for our hearts to be inflamed with the love of God is dangerous – it is a prayer to make the suffering of the human family your own: it is a prayer which takes away any comfortable indifference. As we leave Corpus or if we are staying, the sacred heart of Jesus reminds us that we can never turn our back on the suffering of the human family: we must feed and campaign for the poor and hungry; fight all the systems of this world which prevent human flourishing and we must rid ourselves of the market-logic that says people our only worth as much as the good we can get out of them. To be inflamed with the love of Christ is not a pious sentiment – it should make us uncomfortable with the systems of this world which keep the poor poor and make the rich richer.

Praying for our hearts to be conformed to the heart of Jesus will bring about the transformation of our lives. If we, like Christ, have hearts which are moved with compassion for all who cannot live to their full potential and are moved with indignation for all who have suffered wrong – then we cannot simply carry on as we are. We have to start making decisions that put the needs of the poor above our own, decisions that preserve our vulnerable earth and safeguard the flourishing of every member of the human family.

My prayer, each and everyday is that the sacred heart of Jesus would inflame my heart with the most excellent gift of love. I pray this for each one of you and especially those of us about to set off into the world. I pray that, in the midst of our confused and messy lives, people may catch a glimpse of the divine compassion of Jesus – that, in us, the love which burns at the beating heart of the universe may be experienced.

I adore Thee, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus,
inflame my heart with the divine love with which Thine Own is all on fire.
Amen.

Never Forget the Gift | Reflections for Corpus Christi

Last week, the Church commemorated with great care and solemnity, the gift of the life and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, given to us in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.

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Cambridge celebrates Corpus Christi Day with a procession of the Blessed Sacrament

The Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, what we know as the Blessed Sacrament or Holy Communion, is not for us Christians merely a symbol of Christ, or an expression of community fellowship, or a metaphor, but it is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself. God in Christ makes himself food and drink, so that, taking him into our bodies as nourishment, we can become like him. Adoring and Receiving the Blessed Sacrament we adore and receive Christ.

This is all very mysterious and mystical, but what else could it be? All actions of God to reveal himself to us are mysterious and mystical, the breakthrough of God into this world is always confounding and never fits easily into worldly categories of experience and understanding.

The Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, is the breakthrough of God’s life and presence into our lives and into this world. It might seem easier and safer for us to construe the mystery and mysticism of Holy Communion into a symbol or a metaphor, but this construal, is not what the Blessed Sacrament really and truly is. At the end of the day, we don’t make the Eucharist what it really and truly is, God makes the Eucharist what it really and truly is- and what God in Christ makes the Eucharist is the gift of his very life.

The scriptures set for Corpus Christi emphasise this mystical element. An excerpt from the Book of Genesis recalls the ancient patriarch Abraham’s encounter with the priest and king Melchizedek, who offers bread and wine to God as an affirmation of his covenant, that is, his relationship with Abraham. In response to the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek, Abraham makes his own offering of “a tenth of his possessions”.

The story of this encounter and offering is presented to us as a foreshadowing of the Blessed Sacrament we receive from our true priest and king, Jesus Christ. The Blessed Sacrament establishes us in relationship with God in Christ and our response to the offering of the priest and king Jesus Christ is that we offer him our very lives.

The second reading is an excerpt from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which contains the earliest description of the mystery of the Eucharist. This simple reading reminds us that the Eucharist is not an invention of the Church, but a reality that Christ’s first disciples received from him. It is Christ who declares the Eucharist to be his Body and his Blood and it is Christ who makes the Eucharist the sacrifice of his new worship.

The Eucharist is the worship that God wants for it is the worship that God in Christ gives.

We might desire a different kind of worship and even invent forms of worship to satisfy our desires and needs (indeed the Church seems intent on replacing the Eucharist as the centre of her life) but, while these invented forms of worship might appear to us to be more appealing and entertaining than the worship God in Christ gives to us, they are not what God truly wants for us and they will never give to us what the worship that is faithful to Christ gives. The worship we create may provide us with ideas and feelings and experiences that we associate with God and that’s important but the worship of the Mass is different. In all our worship, we receive experiences of Christ and have an opportunity to draw near to him and meditate with God but there is no form of worship except the Eucharist that can give us the life and presence of Christ himself. As Denys wrote in the 4th century, only the Eucharist ‘can perfect us’.

The meaning of our reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a simple meaning: from the time of the Apostles, the Church has offered the worship that we know as the Mass. It is not just a matter of human custom, but fidelity to Christ, and receiving from Christ, the gift that he wants to give. This gift is his life and his presence, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

Finally, the Gospel of St. Luke testifies to the great miracle, a display of Christ’s divine power. He feeds a vast crowd with only a few morsels of food.

There is no natural explanation to what is described in this account from St. Luke’s Gospel. The people cannot give to one another what they do not have. The disciples cannot give to the people what they do not possess. There is nothing to share, for there is nothing at all to share. God in Christ provides for the people what they cannot provide for themselves. They can only eat and be satisfied because Christ gives them food that he through his divine power creates.

This miracle foreshadows or anticipates the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, heavenly food that God in Christ gives to us, a food we cannot create or provide for ourselves. Christ accomplishes a miracle to suggest to his followers an even greater revelation that is to come – the gift of his life and presence, given to his disciples as food and drink, given to us as a meal, given to us as the Blessed Sacrament.

A greater gift than the food that fed the multitude is the food that Christ makes of his Body and Blood. Greater than the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the revelation of the Eucharistic mystery.

My prayer this Corpus Christi is for the Church – that she may never forget the great gift Christ has given of himself in the Sacrament. Only here can we be satisfied; only here can we find ‘life in all its abundance’; only here can we be perfected. So be it. Amen.

‘Let the whole world tremble; let heaven exult when Christ, the Son of the Living God, is on the altar in the hands of the priest. O admirable height and stupendous condescension! O humble sublimity! O sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself under a morsel of bread.’ – Saint Francis of Assisi

Bread of Angels: S. Thomas on the Eucharist

Ecce Panis Angelorum, factus cibus viatorum
Behold the Bread of Angels has become the food of wayfarers

Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the greatest theologian of all time: his writings remainThomas-Aquinas.png foundational texts in almost all aspects of Christian theology and he is an influential source in philosophy faculties today as well. However, I wanted to use the occasion of his feast (albeit, I am belated in this post) to offer some short reflections on his beautiful
devotional writings. St. Thomas, this great academic of the medieval Church, had the most profound devotion to the Holy Eucharist, he celebrated the Mass every day and spent hours in adoration of the blessed Sacrament. He believed all his theology, all his gifts of wisdom, his whole life, flowed from the gift that Christ has given us in the Eucharist, the source and summit of the Christian life.

It was St.Thomas’ theological prowess and devotion to the Eucharistic mystery that led Pope Urban IV to ask Aquinas to compose the office for the newly established feast of Corpus Christi in 1264. So, in obedience to the Pope, he composed the hymns, offices and texts for the Mass, which would have been heard year by year in my College (Corpus Christi, Cambridge) until the Reformation swept it all away. Now, thanks be to God, we hear glimpses of them again in more musically gifted churches and cathedrals.

I wanted to share just a couple of beautiful quotations from Aquinas’ hymns, and what they might mean to us – as I often think St. Thomas’ understanding of the Eucharist is caricatured too quickly by Anglicans scared of transubstantiation. Perhaps his most famous hymn is the Pange Lingua – parts of which are sung at Benediction services. My favourite verse reads:

On the night of that Last Supper,
seated with his chosen band,
he the Paschal Victim eating,
first fulfils the Law’s command;
then as Food to his apostles
gives himself with his own hand.

Here is the great mystery of the Holy Eucharist, that Christ feeds his friends, by his own hand, with his very self. Imagine arriving at a formal dinner to find that the waiters had been asked to sit down at high table and the host himself was serving the food. It’s almost impossible to believe, but it is what Christ does for his friends. He refuses the seat of honour, washes their feet and serves them. And this is not just any food, but gives his most precious gift, his very self, his own body and blood – his soul, divinity and humanity, given by his own hand to the disciples.

Thomas is emphatic in his beautiful hymns that talk of signs and symbols simply won’t do when confronted with the reality of communion with Christ, which we experience in the Mass. In the next verse of the Pange Lingua, he says,

Verbo caro, panem verum, verbo carnem efficit
Word-made-flesh, the bread of nature, by his Word to flesh he turns

For St. Thomas, Jesus is never just a good example to follow or a good guy to know, he is the very Word of God made flesh. Aquinas believed absolutely that the Word which brought the whole universe into being, was present in Christ, who sat at table with his apostles.What God says, is – the Word of God doesn’t just describe or name, he creates and constitutes. St. Thomas is certain that Christ can, and does, initiate a change at the fundamental level in the Eucharist – the bread becomes his body – just as it was God’s creative word which spoke the bread and wine themselves into existence, so the same Word can change them at the very root of their being. As Jesus himself says, ‘my flesh is true food, my blood true drink’.

Yet, Aquinas knows that when we look to the altar, our eyes show us bread and wine, seemingly unchanged! But his great hymn Tantum Ergo, addresses this for us, ‘faith our outward sense befriending, makes the inner vision clear’.The one who says, ‘this is my body’ is the most trustworthy source! We can believe him when he says it, and St.Thomas rejoices in this mystery.

For St.Thomas though, the most wonderful aspect of the Eucharist is how it changes us, in the verse of one of his hymns that famously begins, Panis angelicus fit panis hominum (Thus the bread of angels is made the bread of mortals) he tells us:

Oh, thing miraculous!
This body of God will nourish
the poor, the servile, and the humble.

Aquinas calls the Eucharist in his writings our viaticum – which is not just food for our dying moments, but the food for our journey, the rations for the pilgrimage, and thus he believes that it is only by our participation in this incredible fountain of grace, that we have the strength and faith to live out our calling as disciples. In one of my favourite of St.Thomas’ phrases on the Eucharist, he says: Ecce Panis Angelorum, factus cibus viatorum, which translates, Behold the Bread of Angels has become the food of wayfarers. It is our extraordinary privilege, in thanksgiving of which we celebrate Corpus Christi every year,  to feed on Christ himself, served to us from Christ’s own hand. Our God is not some far off tyrant demanding subservient worship but the true God, humble enough to offer himself to us as food.This is the gift and reality which fuelled St.Thomas and that which we celebrate, with him and all the saints, as we share in the Eucharist.

 

S. Thomas, pray for us!